We’re really pleased to be partnering with the Oxfordshire Chilli Garden to add a bit of a kick to our current stock list. They specialise in locally grown chillies, both dried and fresh as the season dictates, and they also have a selection of ground spice blends. Rawdon one of the founders and growers tells us more about his spicy venture below.
“We’d been growing chillies as a pastime for about ten years when, in 2015, we decided to start growing them on a slightly larger scale with a view to selling them locally. We’d noticed a growing demand in the UK for spicy foods, particularly among younger generations who had grown up eating spicy food and / or had travelled more extensively than their parents and grandparents and had developed a taste for more ‘exotic’ ingredients. People were also beginning to realise that chillies weren’t just about adding heat but flavour too. Each chilli has its own distinctive taste and can be used to add a particular flavour to certain dishes. South-East Asian dishes, for example, demand a punchy, tangy chilli like a Bird’s Eye, while Caribbean dishes rely on fruity, smoky Habaneros and Scotch Bonnets to give them their distinctive flavour.
We decided from the offset to sell actual chillies rather than chilli sauces because the market seemed to be saturated with the latter. We looked at hundreds of spicy dishes in recipe books and on-line to see what sort of chillies were being used in these dishes, and focused on growing them.
We chose to call ourselves the Oxfordshire Chilli Garden because, to put it simply, that’s what we are. We’re based in Oxfordshire, we grow chillies, and we grow them – literally – in our garden. What you see is what you get!
In our first year, we sold our chillies through just one shop, the Market Garden in Eynsham. We discovered two things. First, that there is indeed a market for different chilli varieties, from the mild to the extremely hot. Secondly, that more and more people wanted to buy locally-grown rather than imported produce. They liked the idea that they were buying a product that had traceability, and also that they were, in a small way, supporting the local economy and helping the environment (fewer food miles, etc). One common response went something along the lines of ‘Wow, I didn’t know you could grow chillies in the UK’. We had lots of positive feedback from the people who had bought and used our chillies, which was really encouraging. We also started getting emails from people asking where they could buy them, especially the more unusual varieties like the Aji Limon (a yellow, lemon-flavoured chilli) and Gibraltar Naga (a blisteringly-hot but incredibly fruity and aromatic variety).
Responding to this,we increased production last year and approached a number of outlets in Oxfordshire and across into Gloucestershire. We had a fabulous response from just about everyone – we love the way small independent outlets are so enthusiastic about embracing locally-grown produce – and our dried chillies are now being sold in 14 outlets in the area. We’ve also supplied them to an Oxfordshire-based company which makes flavoured oils, and have been in discussion with a chef who is starting his own company making and selling cured-meat products like salami and pepperoni using 100% Oxfordshire ingredients. It’s all been very interesting and exciting. Our plan is to continue increasing production, although this largely depends on finding an affordable plot of land we can rent in order to do this (our garden just isn’t big enough anymore). Unfortunately, land like this is as rare as hens’ teeth in Oxfordshire, but we’ll keep banging on doors until we find something!
We’re often asked if our chillies are organic. They aren’t, but we do grow them in as environmentally-friendly a way as possible. We use compost that uses a minimal amount of peat (or no peat at all), we water them with rainwater whenever possible, we use organic fertiliser in the preliminary and secondary (pre-fruiting) stages and – when it’s needed – we only use organic pest control, although in the case of the latter we’ve also been experimenting with other methods. We’ve discovered that planting garlic near the chilli plants, for example, helps to discourage aphids, and scattering broken eggshells around the plants helps to prevent slugs and snails from chomping away on the chillies.
This year, for the first time, we’ll also be experimenting with biological pest control. Weed control is done the old-fashioned way, down on our knees with a weeding trowel! For pollination, we rely on bees and hoverflies (hoverflies in particular love chilli pollen). We sow the seeds in heated propagators under grow-lights in January and February, but once the plants go outside in late spring / early summer, everything is powered by nature: while some UK-based chillifarms use electric greenhouse heaters and power-hungry ventilation systems to grow and ripen their chillies, we rely 100% on heat and light from the sun and a lot of moving plants around so they get the best light and ventilation. The next time we need electricity is when we dry the chillies in the autumn: we wash them, pierce them and put them into a dehydrator where they spend between 12 and 24 hours drying out. After that they’re packed, labelled and, well, that’s it!”
You can buy Oxfordshire Chilli Garden chilli packs and spice blends at all Cultivate weekly stops.
Photo Credit: The Oxfordshire Chilli Garden